Last March, the Perkin-Elmer Corporation received an innocent-looking order for two projection mask aligners from Favag SA, an electronics company in Switzerland. The Micralign 200s, worth $250,000 apiece, are used in the manufacture of digital watches - and missile guidance systems.
After the US Commerce Department approved the order, the Micraligns were shipped to Switzerland. Favag then sold them to Eler Engineering in Geneva, which shipped them to Paris. No one is certain where the Micraligns are now, but US and Swiss government officials suspect they are being taken apart somewhere in the Soviet Union.
In an attempt to plug defense-technology leaks to the USSR, the Reagan administration is lobbying to reshape the legislative stopper governing trade in such items. Few dispute that the eastward flow of high technology should be stemmed. But experts are divided on whether a new export policy will bring the leaks under control.
The issue has two parts. Can the United States keep its technology out of the Soviet Union's reach? And is the technology embodied in the bulk of those exports militarily critical?
Defense-technology leaks need to be addressed immediately, says Mitchel B. Wallerstein, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He points out that the products reaching the Soviets give them access to basic scientific research in the West, since such research goes on side by side with the engineering research that led to the product. It takes very little time to translate research into weapons, he adds.
The Soviets are looking for civilian equipment that incorporates technology with military applications, or ''dual technology.'' Hot items include computers and microelectronic equipment at the cutting edge of Western technology. After taking apart the products, East-bloc scientists can counter Western weapons more effectively and deploy similar ones of their own.
How much money does the Soviet Union save by diverting Western technological exports? Stephen Bryen, deputy assistant secretary of defense for international economic trade and security policy, says, ''We keep getting numbers that are so big, and frighteningly so, that we've given up trying to calculate the amount. But it is in the billions.''
Confining high-tech products to the West is no simple matter. In fact, says S.E. Goodman, professor of management policy at the University of Arizona, it is well-nigh impossible. Today's technical and business trends make technology transfer fairly easy for the Soviets. First, the US no longer has a corner on high technology, and foreign manufacturers sell sophisticated technology to the East bloc. Second, as high-technology goods, especially computers, are widely used and distributed, the technology they embody will inevitably be disseminated. And third, miniaturization means that ''unlike 1958, a lot of products of advanced technology fit in a briefcase,'' says Dr. Goodman.
In 1981, according to the Commerce Department, West Germany exported nine times as much high-technology equipment to the Soviets than did the US. Japan sold them seven times as much as the US, France about four times. In fact, the US sold less equipment to the Soviet Union than Italy, Finland, Britain, Switzerland, and Sweden, all of which produce much less high-technology equipment than America.Experts say that US exports tend to be on the low end of high technology, such as track-laying equipment.
Aside from legal sales, much equipment slips through the West's fingers unintentionally. Each year the Soviets acquire $75 million to $150 million worth of high-technology exports embargoed by the Commodities Control List (CCL), according to Bohdan Denysyk, deputy assistant secretary of export administration at the Commerce Department. The list consists of around 200,000 items that the members of the Coordinating Committee (CoCom) - Japan and the NATO countries, except for Spain and Iceland - have agreed not to sell to the East bloc for security reasons.
One way to ''divert'' exports from the West to the Soviet Union is to set up a dummy company in a noncommunist country. The company imports sophisticated US equipment and then sends it to the Soviet Union.
Another method is to persuade real foreign companies to import US equipment and then sell it to the Soviets for a profit. This happens in NATO as well as nonaligned countries like Finland, Austria, and Switzerland. A Spanish electronics firm, Piher, SA, for example, imported semiconductor equipment from the US early in 1982. The equipment showed up in Cuba, says the Commerce Department, which issued a temporary denial order for any shipments to Piher a year ago. The Spanish Embassy would not comment on the incident. Such acquisitions save the Soviet Union not only money on research, but time. The Commerce Department's Mr. Denysyk estimates that five years ago the Soviet Union was 15 years behind the West in semiconductor manufacturing. Today, it is only seven years behind.
''To the extent that they're becoming more systematic in getting our research , we have a shorter and shorter lead time,'' says Professor Wallerstein.
Even if the US could stop all exports from reaching the East, it may not be in its interest to do so. If the items are not advanced enough to hurt America's defense program, then US firms are losing business without reason.
The General Accounting Office estimated that in 1981, almost half the 60,783 export applications reviewed by the Commerce Department were not considered militarily significant by the US or other CoCom members.
In the end, says Professor Goodman, ''We have to balance the national-securities threat with the economic threat. The health of the US economy is an important strategic concern. And the question needs to be asked: Does export control cut its own throat, making control unnecessary? Given enough control, no one will buy US exports anyways.'' Soviet Union's leading high-tec suppliers -- 1981 Millions % of industrial of dollars world sales West Germany 501.8 28.9 Japan 366.0 21.1 France 204.7 11.8 Italy 156.3 9.0 Finland 121.8 7.0 Britain 93.6 5.4 Switzerland 80.0 4.6 Sweden 77.3 4.5 US 56.5 3.3 Austria 30.4 1.8 Denmark 17.9 1.0 Source: US Department of Commerce